It’s surprising how few recent fiction movies have dealt with the collapsed economy head-on. Sure, there have been a series of insightful documentaries on the topic (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Inside Job come to mind), but not very many have pointed to the Financial Crisis as a salient and important part of everyday life, and most especially they haven’t mined comedy from it. David Wain’s Wanderlust (which will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Video-Ezy on July 18th) did it. The oft-forgotten Mad Money did it. But most films have tried to continue with life-as-usual, or made the economy seem like a vast and complicated world of Kafkaesque doublespeak and heart-wrenching tragedy.
There have been several glittering examples, however, of films that take the notions of poverty and economic hardships and make them into something funny and enjoyable. Sure, we may be poor, we may just have been fired, we may not be able to get a job anywhere in town, and we may be tempted to slip into a depressive alcoholic stupor, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time! Here is a list of films that can give you the giggles about the economy, and have you smiling in the face of it all.
Released just a month ago, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is indeed a magical film about the backstage workings of a slightly trashy all-male strip join in Florida. The title character is played by Channing Tatum, and he essentially tells his own story as an aspiring stripper, although Alex Pettyfer plays the Tatum character, and Tatum plays a possible real-life mentor. A central conceit of Magic Mike is that Mike is saving up money, running away from bad credit, and dreams of starting his own business someday, only he’s trapped in the world of male strippers, which provides free cocaine, sexy girls, and endless parties. The centerpiece of the movie is a scene not where Mike smirks to the camera and removes his shirt and shorts, but a scene where he applies (and is rejected) for a loan. Even hot strippers feel the pain. At least they’re having orgies in the meantime.
Everything Must Go
At its heart, Everything Must Go, is a low-budget vehicle for Will Farrell to display his acting chops. It’s also a Bukowskian look at the overwhelming effect of alcoholism. But, more than anything, the enjoyable Everything Must Go strikes a decidedly light tone. Sure, Farrell’s character is a horrible drunk who, because of his addiction to Pabst Blue Ribbon, is fired from his job on the same day his car is repossessed, and his unseen wife leaves him and locks him out of his own house (which has all the makings of a depressing TV movie), but, thanks to Farrell’s kind of wry performance, and the wit of the screenplay, these crippling setbacks have a smirk to them. Things have gotten so bad, it’s almost amusing. There is a definite tone of melancholy, but Everything Must Go is amusing and fun, despite the economic hardships.
Do you hate your job? Do you really hate your job? The guys in Office Space (Ron Livingston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu) hate their job more. Why do they stay at Initech, the soulless and horrible (and vaguely functional) office where they work? Well, it’d be hard to get a job anywhere else. They should be happy to have a job. So they must endure passive-aggressive bosses, constant threats of being fired, and a printer than never works. Director Mike Judge somehow manages to mine their misery for some of the funniest dark humor in his canon. When our beleaguered trio decides to take matters into their own hands, and openly disregard the propriety of their workplace, they become avatars for the audience, fulfilling our dark workplace fantasies of escape. They eventually take that printer out into a field and murder it. Hooray.
Joel McCrea plays a film director – best known for light comedies – who feels he has lost touch with the working man, and needs to reconnect with bumpkins in order to write his next opus, a serious drama called, pretentiously, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Yes, it’s where The Coen Bros. got the title for their movie. He initially has romantic notions of hobos and the poor, and feels that he could use a lesson in salt-of-the-Earth wisdom, but instead he finds mere poverty. He eventually learns that his light comedies have been doing more for the world than any pretentious important-with-a-capital-I film he has his sights on. Preston Sturges was one of the masters of comedy in the 1940s, and his 1941 comic riff on views of poverty is one of his best. Plus is has a foxy, foxy Veronica Lake as “The Girl.” A genuinely funny film, well-written, and with a hot chick. What more do you need?
This one is kind of a gimme. Charlie Chaplin’s famed tramp is kind of the central symbol of comedic poverty, seeing as he wore ill-fitting clothes and lived on the streets. 1931’s City Lights, often cited as his best film, may not be his funniest, but it is his most solid, and it’s most certainly his sweetest. Chaplin, as his tramp, falls in love with a poor blind girl. Feeling he can’t win her by being, well, the tramp that he is, he decides to pose as a rich man, and woo her that way. His improvisations on making himself look wealthy are all funny, and are all undercut by a romance that’s surprisingly disarming. Even poor people can fall in love. The final shot of the film is famous and lovely, and if you haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But the smiles on display all seem genuine.
Thanks to a sadistic bet made by two aging stock brokers, a homeless con man (Eddie Murphy) is granted a new life as a wealthy broker, while a legitimate financial shark (Dan Aykroyd) is set up to be a criminal, and winds up on the streets with PCP in his pocket. And while this could be construed as a study of mean-spirited Reagan-era greed (it was made in 1983), the talent of Murphy and Akyroyd is on full display. It’s also a subtle commentary on the way wealth shapes our lives. It’s also effing funny. It also has Jamie Lee Curtis in it is as a hooker, and she’s good enough to remove her top for the adoring eyes of teenage boys everywhere. It’s like a comic inversion of the hard-edged politicking of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, which was released five years later.
Frustrated Incorporated. A pair of twentysomethings (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson) are trapped in wage slave Hell in New Jersey. One works at a cheap convenience store. The other works at a small, crappy video store. And while they are both oppressed by their dumb jobs, they have found a way to keep themselves entertained with pop culture discussions, sex talk, cursing, and insulting customers. I think anyone who has ever worked retail can attest to the accuracy of this movie. It’s crass and hilarious. What’s more, Kevin Smith’s mid-‘90s debut not only was an important step in the indie film movement, but codified a kind of pop-culture-obsessed patois that lingers over culture to this day. If you’re in your 20s and you haven’t seen Clerks, you need to immediately.
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is one of the better films in the master’s canon. Jack Lemmon plays a beleaguered everyman who works in a vast and horrible office, a faceless cog in a soulless machine. He lives in a kind of crappy apartment with few major conveniences (he has to strain spaghetti through a tennis racquet). He can only climb in his company by allowing the higher-ups use his apartment for sleazy hookups. Poor Jack has to stay outside in the cold while Fred McMurray gets it on, and that’s a disgusting thought. Luckily, he’s a good-natured guy, and seems to giggle at a lot of this, especially when he finds himself falling in love with one of his boss’ hookups, a pretty co-worker played by Shirley MacLaine. The screenplay is simultaneously sweet, hilarious, heartbreaking, and witty. It’s one of the better movies ever made.
The Full Monty
We start with male strippers, and we end on male strippers. Just like in real life. This 1997 indie darling from England features a group of jobless steel workers, who just saw their beloved steel plants close. The job market is gone, and these guys are desperate for money. Led by Robert Carlyle, and inspired by the success of the local nude revue (which all their wives regularly attend) the group (none of them really hunky types) decide to start a strip show of their own. How will they stand apart? Well, not the dancing, not the music, not the production value. They only have the novelty of their own genitals. They go the Full Monty. The notion of “small-town poor people take up a comical and controversial job to get rich” is old by now, but it was The Full Monty that really started the trend. After all, we all have something we can sell.